Bottled up love of Fort Valleys history has exploded into a classic battle between a developer and the community.
City Council will meet Monday to decide whether to stick with the Historic Preservation Commissions decision to deny the demolition of a former Coca-Cola bottling plant. Business owner Danny Strickland wants to build a Wendys in its place.
Strickland, a Kathleen resident who owns a Wendys in Cochran, said he was two months into plans for a new location when he found out the unkept, vacant building he intended to demolish was considered historic.
If I had known it was in a historic district, I would never have made an offer, Strickland said.
Thats no matter to more than 300 residents who signed a petition against the demolition. Jo Ann Dankel, a Fort Valley resident of 30 years who has led the effort, said the old building means more to the community than a new business.
We have a lot of empty buildings in Fort Valley, but no ones trying to tear them down just because its empty, she said. This building is a historic building.
The city passed an ordinance in 1993 that formed the Historic Preservation Commission, tasked with overseeing the preservation of buildings within Fort Valleys established historic districts.
The Coca-Cola building at 309 N. Camellia Blvd. is in the middle of the Fort Valley Downtown and Railroad National Register Historic District, established in 2011.
Its mentioned four times in the application for the district designation and listed as No. 5 of 59 local spots in The Historic Architecture of Fort Valley: A Walking Driving Guide, a pamphlet listed on the Historic Middle Georgia website.
The preservation ordinance says the commission must review all potential demolitions within the historic districts and decide whether to issue a certificate of appropriateness.
The commission denied Stricklands application for the certificate of appropriateness Wednesday in a detailed five-page report filled with the buildings history.
Historic places help to define a community, make a city unique and remind future generations of their communitys past, the report states. The building that is under threat with this proposal may not be picture-postcard quality, but it tells an important story about the citys past.
A property record card the commission found states the plant was built in 1940. However, its architecture, community recollection and the history of its architects indicate the building was built in the 1920s or 1930s, according to the commission report.
According to the report, the nearly 5,800-square-foot building has two levels and a warehouse behind it, though the latter is not considered historic.
Architects Robert Pringle and Francis Smith, of Atlanta architecture firm Pringle & Smith, designed the building in the same fashion as bottling plants they also planned in Elberton, Swainsboro and Thomson, the report states.
It features a hipped tile roof with brackets under the wide eaves; corner brick quoins; running brick bond; and decorative terra-cotta Coca-Cola panel on the buildings front (east) facade, the report states.
From outside, the embossed panel with the classic Coca-Cola lettering is the most noticeable part of the building.
The report states the historic structure is a catalyst for reflective conversations around town.
Folks remember the days when they would stand outside the front window and watch the bottling process; often invited by the employees to come inside to watch the bottling process, and share a free Coca-Cola, the report states. It was a favorite stopping place for a Saturday stroll.
Billie Logue, one of three members of the Historic Preservation Commission, said he and his friends loved the building so much they tried to buy it last year. But owner Tilley Properties wouldnt negotiate the $250,000 asking price, and the deal fell through.
I wanted to turn it into a museum, a Coke history museum, said Logue, a Coca-Cola memorabilia collector. We were going to fill the building with what we had and bring in more. In back (the warehouse), we would restore old cars.
Logue and commission member Connie Rainey declined to talk about the report. Commission member Jeffrey Jennings did not return messages for comment.
The commission, as well as Dankel, suggested Strickland could build a one-of-a-kind Wendys, one built inside of the old Coca-Cola bottling company.
There are other fast food restaurants in Georgia and all over the United States, and especially Europe, that are built right inside of historic buildings, Dankel said. Not only would it save the facade of the Coke building, but it would be a really special Wendys or whatever business.
Such a unique business could afford some tax breaks for Strickland, attract tourists to Fort Valley and be a focal point of downtown Fort Valley, the report argued.
Developer questions historic value
Strickland, however, said he already has spent three months and $25,000 on the current plans. Changing strategy now would cost more time and money he hadnt bargained for.
Once you get over a certain amount of money, it becomes not worth it, Strickland said.
At this point though, Strickland said hes invested too much money and time to back away without completing the last step in the historic process. He appealed to City Council the same day he received the commissions report.
City Council called a meeting for 11 a.m. Monday at City Hall. The agenda includes Stricklands appeal and three other items.
Mayor John Stumbo and council will decide whether to uphold the Historic Preservation Commissions decision, modify it or strike it down.
I would prefer not to comment on the commissions report, Stumbo said Friday, adding thats his standard policy. If the council has to stand in judgment of something, I dont comment.
Strickland said he made an offer on the Coke building in May and said he had no idea the building was designated as historic. It wasnt mentioned in the listing or found in documentation he reviewed.
Strickland said hes a history buff and appreciates the value of preservation.
However, he said, the Coke building may not be what it once was.
Its been on the market since the early 1980s. Weeds encase the cement parking lot and building. On his one walk-through, Strickland noted no bottling equipment remains, and the floorboards were rotted.
I understand the importance of history, and I dont want to mess with that, Strickland said. But my question is: As the building sits right now, what is that doing to preserve the history of Fort Valley?
Strickland compared the communitys affinity for the building to his aging process. He was once a young lad, able to run, jump and skip at will, he explained.
In my mind, I would like to think Im still that person I used to be. But Im not, the 52-year-old said. Maybe in their minds, they see it like it was back then. But it isnt.
The business owner intends to pay homage to the citys history through dining room photos of Fort Valleys culture, including the citys once-largest ice machine in the world, Fort Valley College (now Fort Valley State University), Lane Packing Co. and Blue Bird Corp. Its the same concept as his Cochran location, he said.
Im not a bad guy, Strickland said. Im not trying to do a bad thing.
History versus development
Dankel and the Historic Preservation Commission said if City Council contradicts its preservation ordinance, bad things could happen to the rest of the citys historic buildings because theyd be vulnerable.
For a city like Fort Valley, whose rich and storied cultural heritage is reflected in its historic buildings, that is unacceptable, the report stated.
Meanwhile, Stumbo said hes stuck between a brick and a building. The community has begged for more commercial development to produce jobs and revenue, yet the community is against a business at the heart of the city, he explained.
People want me to do what I can to get economic development downtown. They want less taxes, Stumbo said.
City Council understands the city needs to preserve its history but not necessarily by saving every building, Stumbo said.
Residents have argued the intersection, which already has a McDonalds and Burger King, doesnt need another fast food restaurant. To that, Stumbo said he and council cannot discriminate against the type of business.
Its not my job to decide what should and shouldnt come, Stumbo said. Its not up to government to manipulate this.
Dankel agreed Fort Valley needs a boost in development but didnt think Stricklands idea is it.
Were very poor in Fort Valley. We want and need jobs here, Dankel said. But we also want our important buildings to be preserved for now and for the future.
To contact writer Christina M. Wright, call 256-9685.